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The People Band with Gina Southgate at The Vortex


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Gina Southgate and The People Band
The Vortex
London, UK
May 11, 2013

On a Saturday evening in the heart of Dalston, East London, The People Band once again graced The Vortex with its free form and improvised style of jazz. As the group played, artist Gina Southgate, with the help of a very computer-literate assistant, created live paintings which were projected on a screen behind the musicians.

The collaboration created a visual and audio spectacle which proved almost too much to take in. The People Band provided music which showed free playing at its best. At times it played with complete unity, whilst at others, creating a cacophony of sound where each musician was doing their own thing, yet so in tune to those around them that it all made sense—a bit like watching a group of people holding a lively debate, all with something vital to say, saying it loud and clear and yet all agreeing upon and delivering the same overall message.

Painted images appeared on the screen behind; created using brushes, combs, sticks and cloths, each picture evolving with the music. With the artist's hands in view, the process proved entertaining in itself. Faces, a moon, wild and varied colors and finished pieces all came into being and then changed, as Southgate swapped canvasses to capture the essence of what was happening onstage. Clever imaging skills and play with digital timers meant that at times the artist's hands seemed to slow, then speeding up to whizz across the canvas in a blur, producing the finished image in what seemed just a few moments.

The People Band line-up consisted of drummer Terry Day, saxophonist/flautist George Khan, trumpeter/bass guitarist Mike Figgis, saxophonist/flautis/ bass clarinetist Paul Jolly; double bassist/guitarist/violinist Charlie Hart, keyboardist Adam Hart, percussionist Tony Edwards, saxophonist/flautist/harmonicist/whistler Davey Payne and guitarist Brian Godding. The group continues to be welcomed into the hearts of audiences loving free form jazz, and on this evening it showed why. As soon as the group was welcomed to the stage by the Vortex's manager, the audience reacted warmly, and the People Band proved to be on form, from the opening ethereal number of two flutes and percussion right through to the finale where the entire band delivered a free playing spectacle to a delighted audience.

In between, numbers came and went, flowing in and out, sometimes with a break between, other times not. Some numbers had structure and melodies, others were more capricious, seemingly born as they were played, each member on stage (sometimes as few as two, other times three or eight, depending on the mood), adding bits or falling silent. Sometimes members joined in from offstage or off to one side. It did not matter; it was all good.

Each People Band member is an outstanding musician in his own right, but it is when they unite for a rare gig that they are, perhaps, at their best. They inspire each other onstage—that they have played together off and on for 40 years or so helps, but it was plain to see they were enjoying playing together, to the benefit of the audience.

Each member got to support and solo, and it was difficult to spotlight any player in particular, but inevitably there were moments which stood out. When Hart's violin emerged above a riotous tune, he held the audience captive with an outstanding solo, teasing the sweetest, highest notes from his violin strings before developing the music into a raucous riff for contrast.

Charlie Hart joined Adam at the piano, and the brothers created an off-the-cuff fugue of rock/boogie-woogie tunes—a mini-set which got everyone smiling. Bonkers, of course, played at breakneck speed; naturally, but utterly and totally enthralling.

Bass clarinetist Jolly, percussionist Edwards and saxophonist/flautist Khan all produced solos and provided more than adequate support for their fellow musicians. Khan delivered two particularly notable flute solos—the first intentional, and the second simply because the audience insisted he stay onstage. Figgis swapped his trumpet for an electric bass and started a blues riff which was picked up by other members of the band as they morphed into a relentless blues number with other players entering and leaving at will.

Observing The People Band onstage conjures up several reactions. There is a sense of delight, of course, but there is also bittersweetness because it is undoubtedly still one of the better free form combos when it plays, but it is rare to get its members together due to health problems, the band members being scattered all across the UK, and the various other projects in which they are involved; Charlie Hart, for example, is currently in four bands. However, this makes the events when the People Band comes together all the better and to be enjoyed.

The audience was also aware it had been treated to a display of a lot what is best about free playing. The People Band does not play as individuals, although each gets to solo. Instead, it plays as a tightly knit yet free combo—a difficult balance to achieve. The band plays for the listeners, too, tweaking each performance according to venue and mood so that no gig is ever the same. The players watch each other, picking up where support is needed, indicating when they want a fellow member to quieten down (whether they do or not is another matter) and listening intently to the music around them.

Together with the evolving paintings, the experience was organic, with art and craft on one stage. Free playing is, by nature, ephemeral. Those moments when several musicians come together and deliver sounds that make your soul smile, or when the playing of a soloist evokes deep emotions can never be recaptured. When the last note fades, the moment has gone forever. What Southgate did was, perhaps, capture those moments, holding them forever captive in her canvasses. She captured what was, for her, the essence of the moment and preserved it in a visual medium, offering the audience a chance to see lasting images evolving from moments of music when the artist made those fleeting, ephemeral moments of bliss permanent. One thing is for sure, the whole experience was interesting and hugely enjoyable.

The Vortex was a great venue for this mixed-media event. The atmosphere was friendly and the layout easy to navigate. The staff welcome all and have worked hard to create a venue which offers a good range of different music and events.

It is a rare occasion for The People Band to play, but the warm reaction from the audience should tell it how people feel and, if the group plays more often, as it apparently wants to do, then I, for one, intend to have a table, in the second row, with my name stamped on it.

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